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December 05, 2007

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Don Chamberlain

Dear David Ewart,

As Paul apparently said when he was about to lecture one or other of the then current congregations; Greetings.

Pete Collins sent me a copy of a recent dissertation of yours that dealt with the signs of demise of the United Church.

You provided a good, typically academic look at the problems facing all but Islam and the more fundamentalist Christian denominations. You gave a very business like presentation. The weakness in your piece was that the solutions if any were rather vague. Like all good academics you did a good job with statistics and suggested readings.

It seems to me that religious leaders like you have no real idea of what is going wrong. Pete sent me the UC magazine for over a year. I was impressed by the insight of the writers of articles in that magazine and their understanding of business management systems and how to keep a good social atmosphere in the congregations. But no one seemed to be aware of the reason why those "masses of kids who did not go from Sunday school into the Sunday morning worship services".

In your navel gazing you have not seemed to realize what seems so obvious to me why people are dropping away from church attendance. You seem unaware of what caused people like myself to leave teaching in Sunday school, Scouting and regular attendance at church.

The tenor of the articles in the UC magazine were similar to yours. They wondered about why things were not going well but never really attempted to answer what is probably the most important question. Why do so few people really believe in God?

You talk about God and Jesus as though they are real entities. You claim that no one can prove God’s existence. Fair enough. But why would someone want to join an organization that does not attempt to prove what they expect others to believe in.

At this time of the year you and your colleagues will dwell on the promise of good will to all men and that Jesus’ birth would save the world from sin. But you cannot explain why that promise of peace and goodwill between people of the world has not been forthcoming. And because the world’s population has grown since Herod’s time there will have been an increase in sinning.

When some critics claimed that God was dead or had lost interest in the world and in mankind, you were unable to rebut that idea; other than saying well God is not a puppeteer and God gave us freewill to choose between good and evil. You continue to give God credit for all the wonderful things about life _ God created them – but everything bad that nature and mankind produces; well God had no hand in such awful things.

You are unable to prove, in a world that has so much more knowledge and understanding about how life is lived, that the claims made about God and Jesus are have a basis in reality.

Many times in the past belief has faded in many Christian communities. The Christian appeal to human emotions has become weaker. Previously someone like a John Wesley or Billy Graham has come along to stir up a religious fervour. Those inspirational folk have been able, temporarily, to re-ignite the emotional aspects of belief but increasingly many people are not prepared to accept what could well be myth as the truth.

The western world worships Mammon. Mammon is tangible and capitalistic and it creates a consumer and better life-style environment now. Religion offers hope that something better will be available if people believe what the priesthood tells them. But what we are asked to believe in is not tangible, certainly you cannot prove God exists or that Jesus’ life was as described by the gospeller’s.

Most people outside the church are from Missouri. Especially when it comes to religious belief people are looking for facts not things that could be but nice pipe dreams.

I can look back on the first twenty-eight years of my life with a great deal of happiness and gratitude. Certainly while I thought I was living God’s grace, even though I experienced war and hunger etc. it was good to be alive and to be living as I thought God wanted me to live. I enjoyed teaching in Sunday school, enjoyed worship services being part of a Christian community was great. But when I found that church leaders would not or could not discuss whether God was real or not, doubts began to creep into my mind. In the end I left because I felt like a hypocrite mouthing things like the creed and singing those wonderfully uplifting hymns and because believers would not tackle the questions about the validity of the things we believed in. Religion became empty.

Over the years since I have tried to get enthusiastic about believing in what the church offers. I joined a couple of other congregations looking for enlightenment. And more recently I have taken a couple of Alpha courses and one supposedly more advanced course in understanding the Bible. But no one in those situations was prepared to examine either their belief systems or to try to prove that God exists in reality.

In one group I was the only none believer attending. My guess was that the believers were looking for a boost to their beliefs so it made sense for them to be there. But that I was the only questioner there made me wonder about the effectiveness of the appeal to non-believing types to attend.

Could it be that like political rallies only the converted hear the call? Could the drops in attendance be similar to the falling off of voters turning up to the polling booths? Could it be that people in general have as little trust in the clergy to be able to spell out reality as we do about politicians boasting about but failing to develop a decent democracy?

Could it be that people chose not to belong to an organization that claimed people were called to the ministry by God when some of such people abused children?

What kind of a recruiting item is the current inability of the people of God to resolve the bickering in so many denominations about whether to marry homosexuals? Those holding different views obviously think that God apparently reveals two different ideas about that question.
Are people encouraged to join an organization that has not been able to mediate peace between apparently bitter disagreements in that UC church in New Westminster?

Can there be a God who would not be able to control things in a better fashion? Perhaps God doesn’t exist?

Not too long ago Pete tried to get some of current leaders to discuss things with me, including a link to you. But none of them were prepared to spend the time. One UBC academic told Pete it would be a waste of time to engage in discussion with me.

So much for the idea of the shepherd seeking to find the lost sheep and restore it to the flock. I get the impression that most believers are prepared to talk for ever about how strong their belief is but will not spend a couple of moments about trying to explain why they believe in entities that may not exist.

It seems to me that people with an emotional inclination and conditioning become believers. But obviously that combination is having less and less appeal to the majority of people in the world. To counteract that there has to be something tangible and provable about the gods people will ‘believe in’.

Forget your business and academic insights into what is going wrong with the church. True you need to recruit more people to be able to sustain the business aspects of running a church but much more is needed. The only thing that will bring western religion alive again would be for you to prove up your claims about God and Jesus. All the time you ask us to believe in something that had deep appeal thousands of years ago but about which you are not able to prove is the truth you are in a losing battle.

Have you lost sight of the reality that the once much believed in pantheons of gods have disappeared from religious belief systems? Why was that?

Could it be that because not only were the people offered something more believable to have faith in? Was it because the priesthoods in those days were unable to prove up their claims about their gods and people just lost interest in worshipping entities that did not exist? You have not learned from history; so are you making the same mistakes as did the druids and believers in Zeus? Belief like superstition was popular with people less inclined to seek scientific answers. Most of us whether we realize it or not have moved beyond those who went before us.

If you were able to prove that God exists and that Jesus lived and died the way we were taught; if you could prove that there was a better life after this one we know exists, you would have to build more churches and they would be filled with people living Christian lives.
Take time to realize the real problem. Don’t overdo the navel gazing aspects.

Currently I am reveling in this Yuletide. It is a major appeal to my emotions that is being roused at this time of the year. I delight in reading Matthew and Luke’s attempt to explain why Jesus was considered such a wonderful man. Those tales still appeal strongly to my emotions. They still give me deep pleasure. But then I enjoy reading other stories that are acknowledged as myths.

I think that Dickens’ A Christmas Carol offers more insight into what humanity needs to do to improve things. Although Dickens uses possibly dream creatures as the three ghosts to explain Scrooges conversion, Dickens makes it very clear that it was the changed attitude of Scrooge that caused the conversion from rotter to nice guy. Dickens does not ask people to believe that belief in the ghosts or a belief in any other supernatural power, or a belief in Scrooge as a person that existed are necessary to get things turned around – later on (in heaven). He makes it very clear that tuum est.

Cheers, best wishes from DonC

David Ewart

I actually received the comment below from Don Chamberlain as an email, and with Don's permission have published it here.

Below is my email response to Don ...
-----
Hi Don,

I don’t think of myself as an academic or navel gazer, so have to set aside those characterizations while reading the points your note makes.

I actually agree with your comments about the need for those of us who believe in the reality of God to be able to talk sensibly about the scientific, historic and other grounds for such a belief.

Unfortunately, the ability to have a sensible conversation is complicated by a number of factors.

One is the history of the conversation between science and religion in the West.

Science provided a fundamental challenge to the ways of knowing what is really real that had previously been the exclusive domain of the Church to arbitrate. My superficial reading of that history is that the Church was caught flat footed and had no real way to philosophically engage the new “scientific method.” (And of course the “scientific method” did not emerge in one fell swoop. There was a considerable period of development and debate within the scientific community itself. And thus there was a complicated and unhelpful response from the Church throughout this period as well.)

But essentially, the sole authority of the Church to arbitrate what was really real was eliminated, and over time science has taken that role – or at least has been given that sole role. And so the ability for any serious conversation between science and religion has never really existed – they have been positioned as being mutually exclusive antagonists. (Though today, I think it is more true to say that “what is really real” is thought of as just being everyone’s personal individual right to decide for themselves. There really is no such thing as “really real” outside of our personal experience. Which is a great belief for those who want to dominate the world through selling personal satisfaction. – But that’s my cynicism showing through.)

This conflict between science and religion need not be the case, but it does require both parties to agree that if God is really real than there needs to be a way to talk sensibly about God using modern scientific method, AND other ways of knowing what is really real. In other words, I am willing to converse with scientists on their terms, but to truly be in conversation, scientists must also be willing to concede that there are other ways of knowing what is really real than the scientific method.

I agree with your criticism that by and large, the Church has done a miserable job of talking about the reality of God in any way that sensibly relates to modern science. The vast majority of church leaders have no grounding in science, do not understand scientific methodology and reasoning, and by and large simply repeat the rhetoric they inherited from the 17 and 1800’s.

At the risk of sounding like an academic navel gazer, my question to you is, “Are you prepared to grant that there are – or at least may be – other, valid ways of knowing what is really real in addition to the scientific method? If your answer is, “Yes,” then we can talk. But if in your heart of hearts, the answer is, “No,” then we won’t be able to have a conversation – we’ll be talking past each other.

The reason I ask this question is simply because a foundational premise of modern science is that God cannot be used in any understanding or explanation of observed events. So if one begins with science as being the only way of knowing what is really real, then by definition, one cannot even begin to discuss the reality of God within a scientific framework. “Conversation” as such is pointless and a waste of our mutual good time.

A second thing that complicates a response is your desire for proof that “God exists and that Jesus lived and died the way we were taught.”

First of all, I doubt that I would defend what you were taught. I probably don’t believe much of it myself, so you’ll need to find someone else to try and “prove” that. (And frankly, I don’t believe it because in my humble opinion much of what I was taught is simply not believable. I DO however believe there is a God and that Jesus lived and died.)

Secondly, “proof” is a very narrowly defined scientific term. Obviously if there were scientific “proof” for God we would not be having this conversation. But actually there is no scientific “proof” for quite a lot of interesting things – like gravity for example. And by this I simply mean that science itself is still an open-ended, learning, enterprise. It may very well be that one day science will “prove” the existence – or non-existence – of God. But in the meantime, “God” is still in the realm of undecided possibilities. So that means, I cannot scientifically “prove” nor “disprove” the existence of God, but I am willing to describe and discuss the evidence – the experiences – for such a possibility. But proof? No. There is no proof either way. If you want proof, you will again have to talk with someone else.

I hope this response is helpful.

Unfortunately, I again have to caution that you seem to have way more time to engage in these discussions than I do. So I won’t respond as quickly or as often as you might want. But if you can see the questions the way I do, I am willing to continue the discussion as I am able.

Thanks for writing.
David Ewart.

David Ewart

Don then replied to my note by inserting his comments into my original, and I replied back.

That correspondence follows with [DE1] indicating my original response; [DC] indicating Don's reply; and [DE2] being my second reply. (Hope this all will make sense.)
[DE1] I actually agree with your comments about the need for those of us who believe in the reality of God to be able to talk sensibly about the scientific, historic and other grounds for such a belief.
[DC] Is anyone actually doing this? Are there any commentaries about Karen Armstrong's book about The History of God? I did not come across anything like that in the year of reading the UC magazine. And the only books i can find in the local library about God and Jesus are along the lines of books written by C.S. Lewis or even more conservative offerings.
[DE2] There are very few, but a few. Usually the scientists have to be considered a bit crazy by their colleagues because “religion” is a taboo subject within the scientific academies. A couple of people who are both trained in the sciences and in theology are John Polklingthorne and Ian Barbour. I have found the Process and Faith, web site quite helpful. “Process” theology is an approach to both understanding God that was developed by mathematician and philosopher, W. G. Whitehead – a colleague’s of Bertram Russell! You can find that link on my web site. Googling “science and religion” might be fruitful though I’ve not tried that.

[DE1] Unfortunately, the ability to have a sensible conversation is complicated by a number of factors.
[DC]The factor that seems to complicate the situation the most is the attitude of religious leaders who do not seem to want to discuss anything else other than how strong there belief is. Such offerings swing between two schools of thought. One is that God cannot be understood, all we can do is to believe in what the churtches down through the ages have offered us.

The other school's response is to own up to having no idea of who, where, or why God is suppoed to be or work, and to change the subject.

[DE2] Unfortunately, that has been my experience too. Partly why I have been so vague with you is that in order to avoid repeating that unhelpful pattern, we have to go back to clarifying the basic assumptions we used to make about what is really real.

[DE1] One is the history of the conversation between science and religion in the West. Science provided a fundamental challenge to the ways of knowing what is really real that had previously been the exclusive domain of the Church to arbitrate.
[DC] To arbutrate about what?
[DE2] To unilaterally arbitrate among competing ideas, and declare what is “True / Real.”

[DE1] My superficial reading of that history is that the Church was caught flat footed and had no real way to philosophically engage the new “scientific method.” (And of course the “scientific method” did not emerge in one fell swoop. There was a considerable period of development and debate within the scientific community itself. And thus there was a complicated and unhelpful response from the Church throughout this period as well.)
[DC] Has the Church changed in recent years? Have theologians sought the help of science to prove up the religious claims about God and Jesus? Or have they moved from attacking Darwinians to moving off to one side to keep on doing what has been done down through the ages?
[DE2] As you know, there is no single response by the churches. Some evangelical scholars in the US have been viciously attacked and had their careers ruined for suggesting that maybe the earth really is several billion years old, and instead of creation-in-six-days maybe we could think – scientifically – about how God might be at work in the process of evolution. Apparently 50% of ALL Americans do not believe in evolution! Among my very small circle of friends I can say that, “Yes,” there is a real interest in learning from science. However, such learning does NOT buttress old understandings of God, but forces a re-imaging of how God could be part of a scientific understanding of the universe. The emphasis here is on “could be.” As I have said before, if you want hard facts and proof, there are none. If you want conversation about other possibilities that can be done.

[DE1] But essentially, the sole authority of the Church to arbitrate what was really real was eliminated, and over time science has taken that role – or at least has been given that sole role. And so the ability for any serious conversation between science and religion has never really existed – they have been positioned as being mutually exclusive antagonists.
[DC] It seesms to me that you are correct, there never has been any meaningful dialogue between church and science. And if as I suspect and fear that religion is an emotional appeal to human emotions, and a desire to avoid dealing with facts the church has avoided trying to have dialogue.
[DE2] It could be that religion will indeed turn out to be about nothing but emotions and wishful thinking. However, as I have said there is small conversation going on that does try to use our heads as well as our hearts.

[DE1](Though today, I think it is more true to say that “what is really real” is thought of as just being everyone’s personal individual right to decide for themselves.
[DC] I doubt that sincere scientists would agree with you.
[DE2] True, I was referring to popular culture.
[DC] Surely it has been a generation of psychologists and psychoiatrists who have been discussing the idea that we all have the individual right to decide for ourselves what it truth and what is right. It has been my impression that they have been observing what has been going on rather than trying to develop a code of ethics.
[DE2] And that is all I was trying to do – simply make an observation about how “God” is thought about. My sons and their young adult friends all think of God as personal option – sort of like preferring Rap instead of Hip Hop.

[DE1] There really is no such thing as “really real” outside of our personal experience. Which is a great belief for those who want to dominate the world through selling personal satisfaction. – But that’s my cynicism showing through.)
[DC] Your cycnicism is pretty accurate. Mamon, commerce and industry do indeed foster the idea that if we want something we should be able to buy it from them. And that such purchases will make our lives wonderful. Do preachers rail against such a philosphy or are they too busy trying to be business like themselves to offer any counter philosophy? Indeed some of the most successful evangelists use similar tactics to persuade their congregations, either on TV or in those mega churches, that the personal fervent experience that the folk attending are getting and the encouraging the idea that we are all sinners is the right kind of experience to be having to get them into heaven.

[DE1] This conflict between science and religion need not be the case, but it does require both parties to agree that if God is really real
[DC] Isn't this setting conditions that make a discussion unneceassry? This is the point of view that says, "There is God, or God is there." That is sthe stance of those clerics I have met. Wheras what is needed is for theologians and scientists to sit down to see if an answer is forthcoming to the question, "Is there God?"
[DE2] The key word in what I have said is “If.” I could frame the discussion this way: Given what we currently know – and still don’t know – from modern science, are there ways to imagine how a “God” might be part of that natural understanding? What sort of “god” might that be? How could we test whether that understanding is true? Might there need to be changes in how science understands the universe and how it works? How could we test those new understandings?

[DE1] than there needs to be a way to talk sensibly about God using modern scientific method, AND other ways of knowing what is really real. In other words, I am willing to converse with scientists on their terms, but to truly be in conversation, scientists must also be willing to concede that there are other ways of knowing what is really real than the scientific method.

[DC] I agree with your criticism that by and large, the Church has done a miserable job of talking about the reality of God in any way that sensibly relates to modern science.

[DE1] The vast majority of church leaders have no grounding in science, do not understand scientific methodology and reasoning, and by and large simply repeat the rhetoric they inherited from the 17 and 1800’s.
[DC] What does it say about clerics as educators about what is real and what is not if even today the modern minister lack grounding in science? How can anyone talk or preach about reality if they do not know the tools that can measure reality?
[DE2] As you have observed that is why so many ministers stay in the arena of values and feelings. Obviously I’d like to see more ministers comfortable with engaging sciences, but I also know first hand how limited we are.

[DE1] At the risk of sounding like an academic navel gazer, my question to you is, “Are you prepared to grant that there are – or at least may be – other, valid ways of knowing what is really real in addition to the scientific method? If your answer is, “Yes,” then we can talk. But if in your heart of hearts, the answer is, “No,” then we won’t be able to have a conversation – we’ll be talking past each other.
[DC] As I said in my earlier note I would be very happy to look at and talk about these others ways of finding out what is the truth and what is imagined about reality.

[DE1] The reason I ask this question is simply because a foundational premise of modern science is that God cannot be used in any understanding or explanation of observed events.
[DC] I did not know this. It is my impression that what scientists have been doing in exploring what makes us tick and how the universe got started and why it is if we drop a an object it falls to the ground, is to offer reasonable theories about such ideas.

[DC] It seems to me that religious beliefs were the equivalent to theories hundreds and thousands of years ago, but which cannot be substantiated by testing. Indeed it seems that religious leaders have down through the ages condemned those who sought to test the theories or to ask for proof.
[DE2] It has worked both ways. That is, while many scientists do in fact believe in God, the academies they belong too will not accept experiments or research that is based on exploring the reality of God – if it debunks religious belief that is OK, but not the other way round.

[DE1] So if one begins with science as being the only way of knowing what is really real, then by definition, one cannot even begin to discuss the reality of God within a scientific framework. “Conversation” as such is pointless and a waste of our mutual good time.
[DC] The converse is true. If one claims that God's hand created the universe and has a plan for what happens etc. then there is no room for dialogue.
[DE2] True.
[DC] Are theists prepared to discuss," is there God?"
[DE2] A few.

[DE1] A second thing that complicates a response is your desire for proof that “God exists and that Jesus lived and died the way we were taught.”

[DE1] First of all, I doubt that I would defend what you were taught. I probably don’t believe much of it myself, so you’ll need to find someone else to try and “prove” that. (And frankly, I don’t believe it because in my humble opinion much of what I was taught is simply not believable. I DO however believe there is a God and that Jesus lived and died.)
[DC] A good standard answer to my search for the truth about Christian claims. I guess I have been aware of religious belief for over seventy years. I have seen an erosion of elements in people's beliefs about God and Jesus over those years. Except for the fundamentalists. So the question is on what do you base your belief in God and presumably the saving grace of Christ?

[DE1] Secondly, “proof” is a very narrowly defined scientific term. Obviously if there were scientific “proof” for God we would not be having this conversation. But actually there is no scientific “proof” for quite a lot of interesting things – like gravity for example.
[DC] But surely there is proof that there is a force, that has been called gravity, that attracts a less dense object towards an item or body of much stronger density. If you do not accept that theory, how do you explain what can be shown to happen over and over again.
[DE2] We all experience the effects of something we label “gravity.” The effects are well known and well studied. But no one has ever “seen” gravity, and to this day scientists do not have a clear explanation of exactly what “gravity” is. And actually, I expect that within the next decade there will be a major revision of evolution theory and of the role of genes. It turns out that genes and “natural selection” cannot explain the whole process of evolution.

[DC] Why is it that religious leaders and educators shy away from trying to prove that God exists?
[DE2] For a couple of reasons. One is that traditional teachings about God make no sense scientifically and cannot be defended. So that understanding of God has been disproven – for example, it has been disproven that God created the earth in six days. However, disproving a way of understanding God is not the same as disproving the existence of God. As with science itself which is constantly disproving old scientific understandings and developing new ones, so it ought to be with our understanding of God. And, as I have repeatedly said, proving or disproving the existence of God is not within our reach just yet, and may never be. But that doesn’t mean we cannot explore new understandings of God that make sense – or at least do not contradict – scientific discoveries.

[DE1] And by this I simply mean that science itself is still an open-ended, learning, enterprise. It may very well be that one day science will “prove” the existence – or non-existence – of God. But in the meantime, “God” is still in the realm of undecided possibilities.
[DC] We both agree that God may exist in reality. It sounds as though you are like Pete, you have made a decision that God is etc., so you have stopped looking for some other possible truth.

[DC] I cannot fault anybody for adopting such a stance, it is human nature. But such a stance throughout the leaders of the UC could explain why people are not attending worship services as they did in the sixties.

[DE1] So that means, I cannot scientifically “prove” nor “disprove” the existence of God, but I am willing to describe and discuss the evidence – the experiences – for such a possibility. But proof? No. There is no proof either way. If you want proof, you will again have to talk with someone else.
[DC] You are a busy man and probably would be happier if you did not have to deal with guys like me. But if not you professional believers; who? It sounds as though you are an agnostic, one who feels that God cannot be proven. Should i then ask atheists?
[DE2] I am not an agnostic, but as you have pointed out elsewhere, I would have to be blind or a fool not to admit that many other religions have been proven false and maybe my beliefs will be too. In fact, I guess I believe that even if there really is a God, by definition, that “god” would have to be beyond any one person or cultures ability to understand. We can only glimpses and partial knowledge. Which is not the same thing as saying we can’t really know anything for sure.

[DE1] I hope this response is helpful.
[DC] Yes David is has been helpful but in a negative fashion. I judged from reading those earlier pieces of yours and the recent one we have been discussing in these recent notes that you approached religion in a scholarly way as well as in a feeling way. But your reluctance or lack of time to continue a correspondence with me, not only is disappointing but also a confirmation that since God cannot be shown to exist in reality and outside of human imaginations that perhaps God does not exist. And I gotta go clean the house now!

[DE1] Unfortunately, I again have to caution that you seem to have way more time to engage in these discussions than I do. So I won’t respond as quickly or as often as you might want. But if you can see the questions the way I do, I am willing to continue the discussion as I am able.
[DC] I guess I still have a few more years left to be able to discuss this topic with you or anyone else willing to examine the question with me. And of course I am open to being shown that there are other ways to discover the reality outside of our imaginations.

[DC] Cheers, best wishes and may you have as happy a Christmas as I am sure I will have. Thanks. Best wishes to you and yours.

Nedra

People should read this.

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